Lifelong friends Wilf and Reggie, together with former colleague Cissy, are residents of Beecham House, a home for retired opera singers. Every year on Giuseppe ...
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor
Length: 97 minutes
Released: January 11, 2013 Limited
Cast: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Sheridan Smith
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Writer: Ronald Harwood
Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and suggestive humor.
2 1/2 Stars
Moviegoers who kept the senior-friendly "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" in Memphis theaters for three months last year and helped boost the film to a surprise worldwide box-office take of $134 million should be pleased by the arrival of Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, "Quartet," about retired opera singers who strike a few disharmonious notes before making beautiful music together.
Sorry for the obviousness of the wordplay, but "Quartet" isn't exactly subtle itself, despite a generous helping of sublime music by Verdi, Schubert, Boccherini and others, which unfortunately gives way on occasion to the dreary minor-key woodwinds and plaintive piano noodlings of soundtrack composer Dario Marianelli.
The premise of "Quartet" is surefire, given the "mature" demographic that is the film's primary target. (Can a BBC America spinoff TV series be far behind?)
Shot at historic Hedsor House, a Georgian-style mansion near the River Thames, the film takes place at "Beecham House," a home for retired classical musicians and vocalists managed by a young and attractive blond doctor (Sheridan Smith).
Liveliest of the residents is roguish Wilf (Billy Connolly), a Scotsman with flirty eyes and a risqué mouth. His friends and former artistic collaborators include the increasingly dotty Cissy (Pauline Collins) and the subdued and relatively dour Reggie (Tom Courtenay, the only one of the leads who doesn't try to ingratiate himself to the audience with cuteness and shtick).
This trio is made a quartet by the surprise arrival of new resident Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a notorious diva who has given up singing if not the dispensing of droll retorts.
Told she has been assigned to the mansion's B-wing, Jean deadpans: "Sounds like a prison." Recalling her operatic heyday, she reminds her peers: "I never took less than 12 curtain calls — never." (Jean could be kin to Smith's Dowager Countess on "Downton Abbey.")
Also lurking among the luxe interiors and spectacular furnishings is Michael Gambon as the cross-dressing autocrat in charge of the house's annual public fundraising performance. This time, if the show doesn't generate sufficient revenue and goodwill, Beecham might be shut down. (That's a plot device with grayer whiskers than any of Beecham's residents.)
Needless to say, "Quartet" coasts on the charm of its performers, the gloss of the visuals (the cinematography by John de Borman keeps us alert to Hedsor House's loveliness) and the genial fantasy of its oh-so-civilized setting. (Beecham is the type of place where one is liable to encounter a string quartet practicing in a gazebo during one's stroll through the woods.) These elements help compensate for a script by Ronald Harwood (working from his own play) that — like some Beecham residents, no doubt — is more or less toothless.
This is a surprise, considering that Harwood's resume includes Polanski's "The Piano" "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," and "The Dresser," which offered a much more acerbic portrait of aging stage entertainers. The storyline of "Quartet" proceeds as inexorably as the onset of old age itself, but treats conflict and calamity as minor inconveniences, the way a tire treats a speed bump.
The quips similarly operate at sitcom depth. "This is not a retirement home; this is a madhouse," Smith protests at one point; you'd think it would take more than the discovery of a salsa dance class to unglue the diva.
A method actor who found fame during the new wave of American cinema in the late 1960s and '70s, the 75-year-old Hoffman isn't a person one normally associates with classical music, but no doubt he identified with the aging troupers of "Quartet." He pays tribute to these fellow entertainers by populating Beecham House with real-life musicians and singers (including famed soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones), who do their best to steal the show whenever possible. The movie is never more moving than during its closing credits, when photographs of the cast members are juxtaposed with portraits of the performers in their prime.
"Quartet" is at the Malco Ridgeway Four.